Tuesday, December 11, 2018

The Ballad Of Reading Gaol

I had never read the poem.  It comes up in Helen Andrew's essay "Shame Storm," in this month's issue of First Things. She describes her humiliation on the internet, year after year, because of what an ex-boyfriend said about her in a rant that went viral.  He himself was also harmed far beyond what he had expected because his anger became an example and he was not trusted.

Andrews writes about the experience, finishing with reference to Wilde's poem. The essay is well worth reading for its modern lessons about social media, yet the larger, more universal meaning is what took me.

"Of all history’s martyrs to shame, the one whose example consoled me most was Oscar Wilde. He is remembered today as a gay rights pioneer, but, in the letters he wrote after his release from prison, he never rails against the injustice of the law that put him away. He did not think it was a good law, he simply believed that the justice or injustice of the charge against him was irrelevant. What mattered was that he had been rescued from his own pride and selfishness by his experience, when he could not have been saved by any gentler medicine. This lesson, which produced “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” (“I know not whether Laws be right, / Or whether Laws be wrong”), he put into plain prose in a letter written during his exile in July 1897. Sporus was the slave boy that emperor Nero freed and “married”:
To me, suffering seems now a sacramental thing, that makes those whom it touches holy. I think I am in many respects a much better fellow than I was, and I now make no more exorbitant claims on life: I accept everything. I am sure it is all right. I was living a life unworthy of an artist, and though I do not hold with the British view of morals that sets Messalina above Sporus, I see that any materialism in life coarsens the soul, and that the hunger of the body and the appetites of the flesh desecrate always, and often destroy. . . . I learnt many things in prison that were terrible to learn, but I learnt some good lessons that I needed."
I had known that Wilde had some solid Christian understanding despite his libertine ways, as in The Picture of Dorian Gray. I had not known how he ended his days and how the experience of prison changed him.

I teared up reading even the first stanzas.  It took my breath away. I am not a lover of poetry, because the allusive, rather than plain meanings simply don't work for me, however much the sounds and repetitions have force and beauty. Yet when I can get inside the first few layers of a work, aided by others who know better, I can be moved.

1 comment:

Christopher B said...

Ed Driscoll at Instapundit linked it. I thought of recommending it to you after I read it. Quite a lot to chew on.